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Mural storytelling helps Unitec graduate overcome challenges

  • Nikita Sharma
    Nikita and her street art mural on the side of The Docks apartments on Tangihua St in Downtown Auckland.

Unitec graduate Nikita has recently taken part in a street art project commissioned by Auckland Unlimited which depicts the importance of welcoming different cultures and diversity.

The Auckland world of twenty-nine-year-old street artist, storyteller and social campaigner Nikita Sharma is a million miles away from her native India, as the country suffers in the grips of a deadly COVID-19 crisis. Around a quarter of a million people have died to date, and Nikita is deeply worried about her parents and two brothers who live in the family home in New Delhi.

“I’m having a lot of sleepless nights,” she says. “I mentally shut down as my country went into lockdown,” she says. “Art became a great escape for me.”

Along with two other international art students, Unitec graduate Nikita has recently taken part in a street art project commissioned by Auckland Unlimited which depicts the importance of welcoming different cultures and diversity in Te Tōangaroa - an area which spans from the end of Britomart to The Strand. Their mural, which Nikita says portrays diversity, inclusion and culture, is displayed on the side of The Docks apartments on Tangihua St in Downtown Auckland.

"It was an incredible experience being part of the mural team,” she says. “The project gave us the chance to give something back to the city and to the people who have welcomed us. We hope people feel a sense of connection to the artwork."

Nikita graduated with a post-graduate Diploma in Creative Practice from Unitec earlier this year, but she says the journey to get there wasn’t easy.

She originally trained as a journalist in New Delhi and worked for leading Indian publications where she interviewed a lot of international artists, never dreaming that one day she’d end up one herself.

“I didn’t know that art was an option,” says Nikita.  “My parents didn’t want to spend money on an art school education.”

Disillusioned with journalism, she became a writer for a crowdfunding platform, raising funds for various NGOs and medical emergencies. 

“I felt my writing was more appreciated in the non-profit sector,” she says.  With a finely tuned social conscience, she took a keen interest in Corporate Social Responsibility and went on to lead art workshops for some of her international clients, including 3 Pillar Global and Sanofi India, where, she said, “the art just came out.”

On the encouragement of a colleague and fellow artist, she went along to ‘Ladies First’, a women-only street art festival in Mumbai, armed with her small bag of paints. She says it turned out to be a life-changing experience.

“I wanted to pursue arts as I knew I’d found my calling. The opportunity came as a blessing to me and I knew I needed to take it further.”

Her parents remained sceptical about a career in the arts, so the trade-off was that she first had to get married. “I got married in 15 days,” she says. “And if you’ve ever seen an Indian wedding, you’ll know that 15 days is next to impossible. But we did it, and here I am.”

“I chose Unitec because of the campus. All my life I’ve wanted to go to a college where it’s green and luscious and open.  I thought to myself that if it can’t be in Oxford, then this comes close.”  

She was conscious that she didn’t have a formal Arts degree, but credits both Pooja Malik, Unitec’s country manager for India; and Bobby Hung, a lecturer in Design & Contemporary Arts at Unitec, for their support and encouragement.

“Bobby has a PhD in Education which included research on graffiti and street art,” says Nikita.  “As part of the application process he wanted to understand why I wanted to do a post-grad diploma in creative practice. Once he knew my passion was design of public art spaces, I think it’s safe to say he got me.” 

With the disruption caused by COVID-19, she says last year was a challenging year to study, especially as an international student being far away from home.   But she says Unitec staff kept in close contact, and she immersed herself in her work.

“At times I felt very alone, but I was conscious there was a strong support network there if I needed help. I really enjoyed my one-on-one interactions with my supervisor, but studio work in itself is quite isolating.”

Part of her selection for the street art project involved a two-day wānanga at Ōrākei Marae to learn Māori history and of her mural's location in Te Tōangaroa, which is on Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei-owned land. 

“Diversity and inclusion are very important to me,” she says. “As an immigrant, I bring my uniqueness to this creative environment.  My idea is to take this forward, and find more avenues where we can do more multicultural creative projects.”

Right now, Nikita is focused on finding a full-time job to help cover her expenses.  “I want to keep my mural story-telling work going, though,” she says.  Her husband is very supportive, and has ‘actually started to like my art’, she says with a smile. 

“Art isn’t really acknowledged in India to the extent it is in other countries,” she says. “I was running around like a headless chicken for ten years until I found art.”

Inspired by Iris Scott, who paints only with her fingers, Nikita says she was excited and honoured to be involved in the Auckland Unlimited street art project. She’s formed firm friendships with the other two artists she worked with, who she says were collaborative and supportive. 

“They were the tribe I didn’t manage to find last year because of the isolation of lockdown.”  

She says that all those involved in the project were very receptive to each other’s ideas, and there was no holding back.

“Street art brings a lot.  It lifts your mood. It also brings a connection - it’s a way of identifying yourself.  Without art, there’s no life.  Imagine this whole world without colours,” she says.

Nikita says she’s still working on finding her own unique style, but she’d advise any budding artist not to be daunted by the journey. 

“Be brave. It’s very easy to get lost.  Believe in yourself, no matter how small the project. You’ll make something out of something if you believe in it.”

“I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I don’t care.  I just want to create.”

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